Vietnam is a culinary marvel. With influences from China, Japan, and France, plus it’s own rich history of culinary tradition, you’d be hard-pressed to find a country that knows how to eat better. I knew before I arrived that I wanted a major portion of my time in Vietnam to focus on exploring the flavors, familiar and unfamiliar, of this magnificent country. And explore I did! Below are my favorites, old and new, plus where to try them and what city does what dish best.
A Food Guide to Vietnam
The Dishes You Cannot Miss:
Beef Pho (Pho Bo): Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that this savory-broth beef soup is a stellar meal. In my experience, it’s certifiably guaranteed to cure a hangover as well. This dish is done well all over the country, but it originates in the North, so try it in Hanoi.
Bahn Mi: Second only to pho in popularity, this pork and pate sandwich is a staple of Vietnmaese cuisine. With French inspiration (crusty baguette and creamy pate) plus a hard dose of Vietnam (barbecued pork and a nice hit of chili), it is one of the most delicious sandwiches available worldwide. Try this in Hanoi, Hoi An or Saigon.
Fried & Fresh Spring Rolls: Well-known in the West, nearly every restaurant will have an offer of fresh or fried spring rolls. But the produce in Vietnam is so fresh that they will come to life in a completely different way. I recommend getting fresh spring rolls in Saigon — they are true masters of the dish.
Roast/BBQ Duck: On a walking food tour around Hanoi, we were lured into a shop that had bright orange ducks hanging from hooks in the window, dripping with fatty roasted goodness. In no time we were stuffing ourselves with the savory, steaming meat and moaning in delight.
Hoi An Won Tons: An interesting take on a classic Asian dish, Hoi An Wontons are like a cross between nachos and Chinese food. It’s a fried pork wonton (they are served flat, almost like a large chip filled with meat — WIN) topped with a delicious, light relish/salsa that makes all your tastebuds sing. The salsa generally includes cucumber, pineapple, onion, cilantro, bell pepper and a host of spices. YUM!
Bahn Xeo: This one was a winner for me, it turned out to be my favorite new Vietnamese dish. Part crepe, part savory pork/shrimp pancake, it is 100% delicious. The crepe batter is made from rice flour, turmeric and water. Inside, diced pork and shrimp gets stuffed alongside spring onion and bean sprouts. Toasted peanuts, fried shallots and more green onion are usually sprinkled on top. In Hoi An, this is served with rice paper, where slices of the crepe are wrapped and dunked into a yummy pork-and-soybean sauce.
White Rose (Dumplings): This is a specialty of Hoi An, and it as delicious as it is beautiful. Named after the delicate dumpling wrapper made to look like the flower, it is a soft, chewy shrimp dumpling that will stick in your memory for years to come.
Cao Lau: Feeling like something hearty? This beef and wheat noodle dish will satisfy your craving. The noodles are chewy and thick, the beef leaves a savory broth at the bottom of your dish, and even a small bowl can fill a hungry belly. Your best bet for trying this? From the carts that line the streets in Hoi An. They focus only on this delicious dish, and they do it best.
Banh Bao: These pork buns are little pillows of heaven. A fluffy rice bun encases seasoned minced pork and a quail egg, steamed to delicious, savory perfection. While they’ve made their way to the West on many a Vietnamese menu, nothing beats the deliciousness of one of these fresh from the steamer at a roadside cart in Dalat.
Vietnamese Pizza: Stroll through the town center in Dalat, and you’ll see open flame barbecues manned by unsmiling women as they put together… a pizza? A hilarious take on the classic Italian dish, a Vietnamese Pizza has a rice paper for a crust, egg, spring onion, fried shallot, fried shrimp, pork and beef flakes as toppings, and two different ‘secret recipe’ sauces in lieu of marinara. Laughing Cow cheese tops off this masterpiece, which is strangely delicious.
The Restaurants You Cannot Miss:
Bahn Mi 25: The undisputed king of the Vietnamese Sandwich, this tiny cart in the Old Quarter serves up a special pate recipe that will slay you. Get the pork and pate, with a little hit of chili. HEAVEN! Link.
Pho Thin: These guys only do one thing, and that thing is pho. Their broth is thick, they are generous with the meat, and you will want to drown in the delectableness and not come back. Link.
Take the Street Food on Foot Tour with Awesome Travel (ask when Johnny is working, if he still works there). You will not regret the chance to duck into tiny, little-known restaurants and get the true Hanoi experience.
Dishes Not to Miss: Beef Pho (Pho Bo), Bahn Mi
Mermaid: The history of this restaurant is rich: it claims to be the first to cater specifically to foreigners. The story is that group on non-English speakers wandered into the restaurant, and via sign language communicated what they wanted to eat. Miss Vy (the owner) not only wowed them with her cooking, she was savvy enough to get them to write down the names of the dishes in English, thereby creating the first English menu in Hoi An! Get the White Rose and Hoi An Won Tons. Link.
Miss Ly: Another wildly popular institution of Hoi An cuisine, get a booking here or plan to eat early. They specialize in all of Central Vietnamese cuisine, but rarely does anyone complain about anything on the menu. The Fish in Banana Leaves is a crowd favorite. Link.
Cargo Club: Missing your Western Breakfast? Go no further than this riverside cafe. With chic interiors and a menu that prominently features bacon and eggs, you can take a little break from noodles and meat and enjoy a Vietnamese Coffee with your Eggs Benedict. Link.
Bahn Mi Phuong: Anthony Bourdain made this spot famous when he visited it on his show No Reservations, and it is indeed worth a stop. I don’t rate it higher than Banh Mi 25, but if you aren’t lucky enough to go to Hanoi, this is the next-best option. Link.
Dishes Not to Miss: Bahn Xeo, White Rose, Cao Lao, Hoi An Won Ton
The best food in Dalat comes from the street vendors – there are no websites or restaurant names to direct you to. Pro tip: When getting a Vietnamese pizza, make sure you find the lady who uses four different fried flakes on her pizza (see the photo). If there is a dark, watery sauce on offer, skip it. It’s too fishy and can tank the taste of your pizza. If you can find the woman pictured, go to her! She is a maestro of this funky but yummy dish.
Dishes Not to Miss: Vietnamese Pizza + Bahn Bao
Ho Chi Minh:
If your time in Vietnam is short, stick to the Vietnamese food. If you’ve been traveling Asia for a while, use HCMC as the opportunity to deviate toward Western food for a day or two. There are several delicious options to choose from, but great Vietnamese is in abundance as well.
Saffron: This Mediterranean bistro knocked my socks off. The food was incredibly good (see my post on this here), they give you free booze, and the atmosphere is adorable. It’s the perfect place to take yourself on a fancy date. Link.
Secret Garden: This secret spot on a rooftop is enchanting, cheap, and the food is delicious. If you can find the entrance, you will be rewarded. Link.
Dish Not to Miss: Rice Paper Rolls
If there is one place where I really, truly miss the food, it’s Vietnam. Writing this post has my tastebuds crying for past meals, desperate for one more taste of truly authentic Banh Xeo. So go forth, taste, and prosper. Your soul with thank you for it.